“The Mediterranean Diet dished out by companies that marry taste
Bring your own bread.”
- This is by way of a warning. If you ever are invited by Greeks to a taverna for lunch or dinner, within minutes a waiter will place a large array of dishes on the table. These are to be shared, usually without benefit of a dedicated serving utensil (a piece of bread or your own personal cutlery being sufficient to the task of division). Each of these many, many dishes will have their own, special appeal. And so you will sample each one,
probably repeatedly. This is a mistake! Because after you have stuffed yourself silly and are considering whether you want a single espresso or a double, Lunch Arrives. I’ve seen more than one tourist laid low by this practice, much to the amusement of their hosts.
In truth, you should be forgiven for indulging in all those small plates. They are, in my opinion, the highlight of a taverna meal. These small plates, called Mezes, also have bred their own dining establishments, called ouzeria. Ouzeria serve those Mezes that go well with the drinking of Ouzo. Unlike tavernas, ouzerias serve Meze and nothing else, so you can eat all you want without fear of being blindsided later by a large piece of meat, say, or a fish fillet.
There are literally hundreds of Mezes. Some are known throughout Greece and some are regional specialties (like the fried chickpea balls of Siphnos or the meat pies of Cephalonia). I will, alas, be unable to cover all of them (partly because I don’t know all of them).
Instead we will have to make due with a review of more classic examples.
One category of Meze is the dip. These include Tzatziki (yoghurt dip), Melintzanosalata (eggplant dip), Taramosalata (fish roe dip), Tyrokafteri (spicy cheese dip) and Skordalia (garlic dip). These are all relatively easy to prepare (more or less) and so are staples of home cooking.
Another category is pies, or pittas (not to be confused with pita bread). Some are filled with cheese, some with greens, some are savory and some are sweet. Sometimes they appear as independent triangular morsels, sometimes as a rope coiled into a circle, and sometimes as just a rectangular pie. Pittas may be made using commercial phyllo dough, (making super thin phyllo takes four skilled people or one superior grandmother). They may also be made using something called villager’s phyllo dough. This dough is also thin, but one ball of dough yields six sheets as opposed to commercial phyllo’s fifty. Pitta are not easy to make, at least well.
Also difficult to make are dolmades, or grape leaves stuffed with rice. In the winter, meat is added to the rice and a lemon sauce tops the dolmades. Then there are keftedes. These are fried balls, sometimes made of vegetables, but the most common version is made of meat flavored with various spices and served in tomato sauce.
Also popular are various legume dishes, such as fakes (green lentils), gigantes and fava. Gigantes are elephant beans, the most famous of which come from Prespes, a municipality in the Florina Prefecture of Greece.
In Greek mythology Gigantes were a race of giants who attempted to end the reign of Zeus. They weren’t successful, but they did get some really, really big beans named after them. Gigantes beans are usually baked in the oven with a pungent tomato sauce. My favorite bean dish is fava. Fava is not made from fava beans, but from yellow split peas. They are cooked to a mush and then treated with onions, lemon and olive oil. Believe me – it tastes better than it sounds.